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"Onward" creator drew on "magic" of his Clawson upbringing for new Pixar film
After his success with "Monsters University" — to the tune of a $744 million box office — writer/director Dan Scanlon wanted his next film to be "a personal story, something that really came from my heart."
And rest assured the Clawson native dug deep for "Onward," a Pixar project that opens in theaters on March 6.
The animated film taps Scanlon's growing up after the death of his father in a car accident when he was a year old. Blending elements of fantasy and adventure, it focuses on two teenage elf siblings — Tom Holland as Ian Lightfoot and Chris Pratt as his older brother, Barley — who, through a magical birthday gift, have a 24-hour second chance for time with their late dad, though things, of course, don't go as smoothly as intended.
Along the way Scanlon, who co-wrote "Onward" with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, deal with themes of family, legacies, interpersonal relationships, coming of age and the conflict between heritage and modernity — in this case of a world who's magic has been subsumed by contemporary commercial culture.
"I wanted to do something that had an original quality to it because it was true or came from an honest place — I think that was the next challenge I gave myself going forward from 'Monsters,'" Scanlon, 43, says by phone from Paris during a European trip to promote "Onward." "My brother (two years older) and I didn't remember (their father), obviously, and always wondered a lot about who he was and what kind of person he was and also how we were like him and how we were going to grow up to be like him.
"That was really the question that turned into the movie: What if you could meet that person, learn from them and spend a day with them? What if there was one more shot to get to know them?"
The Scanlon brothers did "meet" their father, in a way, via home movies without sound and then an audio recording an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania found some years later.
"It was funny. We heard my mom at age 20, my grandparents, but my dad was always out of the room while they were (taping)," recalls Scanlon, who's coming home as the guest of honor for a screening of "Onward" on Sunday, March 1, in Rochester Hills to benefit the Assistance League of Southeastern Michigan. "Finally my aunt chases him down and tells him to say something and he says 'Hi!' in a really exuberant way.' She tells him to say something other than that and then he says, 'Bye,' in this really somber, low tone.
"Hi and goodbye was all we got, but it was better than nothing. And in its own way it was kind of enough — what more do you need than hello and goodbye? We learned what we could from that."
Scanlon — who now lives in San Francisco and runs Caveat Productions with his wife, Michelle — says both his mother and brother were "incredibly supportive" of his artful leanings, which began with drawing and grew into animation with help from a Big Brother volunteer who taught him about cameras and film technique. He studied illustration and painting at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio and began his career as a film animator working on "Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World" in 1998 and climbing to storyboard artist, writer and finally director status on films such as "Cars," "Mater and the Ghostlight" and "Tracy" before "Monsters University."
He and partner/producer Kori Rae began developing "Onward" six years ago, and Scanlon initially envisioned the film's setting of New Mushroomton as something akin to his hometown. "I wanted it to feel like a nice, average modern city ... this once-beautiful, magical place that is now very modern and everyday and even a little mundane," Scanlon explains. "Once the artists looked at Clawson they said, 'Y'know, Clawson is pretty beautiful, magical and charming. We don't think you're gonna get a strong enough contradiction here.
"So we swerved a bit and made it a little more like Los Angeles — more of a bustling city with lots of modern stuff."
Nevertheless, Scanlon says the residential scenes of Mushroomton strike a sentimental note with him, and "Onward" has certainly made him appreciate where he came from.
"It did wake me up — 'Oh yeah, I guess Clawson is pretty beautiful,'" he says with a laugh. "You grow up somewhere, and it's the place you grew up. y'know?' But my wife and I spend a lot of time there now and she's been charmed by it, and I see it through her eyes now. I love that place. It's really come alive, and it's great."
As he parades "Onward" around the world, Scanlon has been pleased by the impact it's been having on preview audiences.
"People are telling me their personal stories — about their father who passed, or mother, or a brother or sister who meant the world to them," he says. "That's a dream come true. The best thing they tell me is after they saw the movie they were moved to call the person in their life who went above and beyond to help them, and thank them. That's so wonderful."
And, he adds, the Scanlon family — including his brother, a computer programmer in East Lansing, and his mother, now in Rochester Hills and an Assistance League volunteer — is among those ranks.
"We already had a very good relationship," he says, "but it's changed for the better after my family saw the movie. We've been more open and honest with our feelings for each other. That's a big part of the movie — say what you want to say now, while someone's still around. Don't hold back. There's nothing too saccharine or sweet to say to a loved one that isn't going to be appreciated."
"Onward" writer/director Dan Scanlon appears at a special screening at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 1, at Emagine Rochester Hills Theatre, 200 Barclay Circle. Tickets $50 include the film, a silent auction and an afterglow with Scanlon. Proceeds benefit the Assistance League of Southeastern Michigan. Call 248-227-6557 or visit semich.AssistanceLeague.org.
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